Wem gehört die Stadt? New Forms of Protest in Berlin?
The latest issue of the local Zitty Berlin magazine is running a story on the recent rise of new forms of protest and resistance that have emerged in Berlin and that have been pitched against the onward march of private development, the effects of inner-city gentrification, and the further neo-liberalisation of common goods from housing to water.
Ultimately, it comes across as a rather muddled piece which highlights perhaps the contradictions that have come to shape a rather disparate ‘coalition’ of groups with often competing goals and objectives. Are we therefore witnessing the emergence of a new form of extra-parliamentary opposition (APO) as the article suggests? I’m not so sure whether this is indeed the case and whether an obsession with the defence of certain ‘alternative’ Freiräume (or free spaces) misses the mark when it comes to the very questions of displacement and exclusion that are central to any meaningful politics of housing or for that matter any “renewed right to urban life” (Lefebvre, 1996: 158).
It is not surprising that gentrification has become, in this respect, something of a catch-all term for describing the recent (and egregiously uneven) transformation of Berlin and other major German cities. It has certainly been seized on by the media though as an excellent article (auf Deutsch) in Der Freitag suggests, there has been a recent shift in the way in which ‘gentrification’ has been discussed. While there has been a veritable boom in (often critical) articles tracking the uneven geographies of urban redevelopment in recent years, attention has increasingly focused on the social/symbolic capital that is seemingly at stake here. Criticism has now turned to some of the activists themselves and that they are simply interested in defending one form of social capital and distinction – in the shape of putatively ‘cool’ alternative Freiräume – against a new wave of well-paid urban professionals. Protest, according to this view, is inherently conservative and can only lead to the further banalisation of alternative lifestyles and the ‘culturalisation’ of gentrification. As a direct result, pressing questions surrounding rising rent, displacement, and the changing fabric of the housing market are simply elided and we are left with struggles over the meaning of ‘Indie-Spiessigkeit’.
There is much to recommend in this view and I sometimes can’t help but associate such forms of protest with what Theodor Adorno once described as “pseudo-activity.” For Adorno, “pseudo-activity” is best understood as an “action that overdoes and aggravates itself for the sake of its own publicity, without admitting to itself to what extent it serves as a substitute satisfaction, elevating itself into an end in itself” (1998:291; emphasis added). It is indeed telling that the threat to many of Berlin’s Freiräume are the very forces or creative destruction that continue to re-shape the city’s housing ‘market’. What is needed here is less self-serving “actionism” and a willingness to engage in forms of critique that have the potential – however precarious – to foster the formation of broad-based coalitions and that may ultimately lead to the construction of new strategies for resistance.